A NEW library and council customer service facilities have proved popular following the completion of a multi-million pound renovation project.

Durham County Council staff have dealt with 500 inquiries at the new access point in Barnard Castle in the month since it opened.

The library, which is housed in the same building, has seen a surge of interest, with 120 new members joining, more than 6,000 books lent and some 1,000 computer sessions logged.

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The library and access point were part of a wider £3.2m regeneration scheme which also included the adjoining Witham Hall arts complex.

At the official opening of the library and access point, Durham County Council leader Councillor Simon Henig said the facilities vindicated the authority's strategy of safeguarding front-line services where possible in an era of budget cutbacks.

“Since the unitary authority was launched, we were determined to put customer services at the heart of what we do,” he said.

This had resulted in a number of new customer access points across the county, now including Barnard Castle.

“Public sector funding continues to reduce and that's likely to continue. That means more difficult decisions about what we can and can't afford,” said Coun Henig.

“We have been working hard to safeguard front-line services where possible. We have prioritised front-line services and worked hard to make major savings in back office costs.”

Having put £2.1m of council cash towards the total cost of the project, Coun Henig said he was impressed with what had been achieved in Barnard Castle.

“We have worked with Barnard Castle Vision and The Witham trustees to restore these historic buildings and fulfil the educational and philanthropic vision of Henry Witham.

“It looks fantastic and is a place people would want to spend time. We are delighted to have joined the library and customer services with a wider set of facilities under the Witham project.”

Coun Pauline Charlton, chairman of Durham County Council, and Coun Henig unveiled a plaque to mark the opening.

Barnard Castle mayor, Coun Frank Harrison, said he was equally impressed with new facilities.

“It is really smart and enhances the town,” he said.